Your New Church Has Great Music, a Trendy Logo, and Looks Great On Instagram...But, That's Not Enough
Laura M. Holson recently (March 17, 2018) wrote an article about a young, large, fast-growing church in southern California for The New York Times. Dr. Albert Mohler referenced the article and church in his podcast The Briefing, posted on March 23, 2018.)
As I listened to Dr. Mohler's podcast and then read the article, I could not help but think "I know churches just like the one in the article!"
Pastors serving in a metropolitan or suburban (and perhaps in some rural) areas have noticed an uptick in new church starts intent on reaching the next generation. I am excited to see more churches in our city. I am so glad to see men step up, not just as a career choice, but due to a God calling (BTW - not all who seek to pastor, should. I wrote about that in the past here). That's why I serve in our city network as a church planting assessor, offer our facilities for new works, and seek to help those called into pastoral ministry as best I can.
Now that I amazingly am an "old-timer" in our community since I've pastored here for over two decades, I often am asked about some of the new starts that pop up from my peers. Normally the question is something like "What's up with XYZ Church?" Sometimes I know the new pastor and have great things to say. Other times, I have yet to meet the new pastor and have no information to offer. Then, there are the other circumstances when I do know the pastor, know of his theology and focus, and seeking not to be negative, will just encourage others to pray for them (while never encouraging anyone to attend their church.)
Referencing the article from the NYT and Dr. Mohler's assessment once more, I noticed some things that stand out and should be addressed by evangelicals (based on a solid definition of the term). I list some of these below, in no particular order:
The Term "Evangelical" Has Become Almost Unusable
In America today, the term evangelical is used by some who understand the meaning to be related to an identified subset of Christianity that holds to biblical authority and the desire to reach out, or evangelize (thus, the name) those who are non-believers. This is a valid definition. It lines up with the explanation of the National Association of Evangelicals on their site:
Evangelicals take the Bible seriously and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The term “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel.” Thus, the evangelical faith focuses on the “good news” of salvation brought to sinners by Jesus Christ.
However, most recently the term "evangelical" has been muddied. The media uses the term to identify any church or Christian that cannot be categorized as Catholic or Protestant Liberal. More troubling, the term has become an identifier of a perceived political ideology. Christians are likely to blame for this.
Marketing Is Celebrated More Than Message
To be clear, I love specialty marketing stuff. I have no real issues with churches creating attractive logos and plastering them on shirts, hats, or other items. Maybe that's a hold over from my business classes in college. A well-designed logo becomes identifiable in a community. Churches seeking to connect with Millennials often utilize social media (Instagram and Snapchat primarily) to spread the word and create a sense of "coolness" for what they're doing. I'm not opposed to it. Just call it what it is. It is not evangelism. It is not discipleship. It is marketing. While not a bad thing, the church must remember that we have not been called to market well, but to be "salt" and "light" in the world (Matt 5:13-16), commissioned to make disciples of Jesus Christ (Matt 28:19-20).
In some churches, especially the ones referenced in the article, music is incredible, complete with the best sound systems, incredible musicians and smoke machines.
Yet, the message is somewhere an afterthought. The message is toned down into a stream of tweetable thoughts of positive thinking, self-belief, with just enough Jesus sprinkled in to allow the gathering to claim to be Christian. But, it's dangerous.
From Holson's article:
Mr. Veach believes he can save souls by being the hip and happy-go-lucky preacher, the one you want to share a bowl of açaí with at Backyard Bowls on Beverly Boulevard, who declines to publicly discuss politics in the Trump era because it’s hard to minister if no one wants to come to church. Jesus is supposed to be fun, right?
“I want to be loud and dumb,” Mr. Veach said with a wide, toothy grin. “That’s my goal. If we aren’t making people laugh, what are we doing? What is the point?”
Asked about abortion rights, Mr. Veach declined to give a specific answer. “At the end of the day I am a Bible guy,” he said.
Mr. Veach’s father shrugged about his son’s equivocation. “Last thing you want to do is turn off a whole demographic,” he said of today’s pastors. “If you draw lines in the sand, people are going to think God hates them.”
And Mr. Veach wants Zoe to be a refuge for many, against the rhetoric of so many other dogmatic evangelicals.
“From the time I’ve entered, and, maybe, just what we grew up in, it’s, like, you don’t bring politics into church,” he said. “We’re here to preach good news. We’re here to bring hope to humanity. We’re here to talk about God. This is not the place for a political agenda. This is the last place. When I come to church, you know what I need? I need encouragement.”
Dr. Mohler responds:
Now before we dismiss that statement entirely, there's something profoundly true in what he said. People do not come to church in order to talk about politics. That's not what their souls need. But what he said is fundamentally wrong and it ends up being actually, not only allergic to politics but antithetical to the gospel because he reduces what people do need to exactly the wrong word, encouragement. There have been far too many evangelical congregations that have talked more eagerly and more clearly about politics and political issues than they have about the gospel and that is to their shame. But the inescapable fact is that if you are 'a Bible guy" then that means you have to teach the Bible and it means you have to believe the Bible as the inerrant and infallible word of God. It means that you have to preach the parts of the Bible that a contemporary society might find encouraging but it also means you've got to preach the parts of the Bible that a modern, very secular society will find anything but encouraging. Most importantly, if you claim to be committed to human flourishing, you have to be clear about whom the Bible identifies as a human and what flourishing would mean.
"Gospel Lite" with a Good Beat
Now, I do not know Mr. Veach. And, clearly, all I have to go on is what the church promotes online and an article written for The New York Times.
What I do know is that as I read the article about Zoe Church in southern California, as described in this article, I could not help but think of a few churches in our community that seem to have taken the exact blueprint for church launching and growth. They have great music, marketable goods, a trendy logo, an incredible social media presence. This is the Instagram and Snapchat generation and these churches are connecting well.
My concern is the sacrifice of good theology for the propagation of crowd gathering, bent solely on encouragement and good feels.
Many of these music-driven churches are based on others such as Hillsong, described in the NYT article as the "granddaddy of them all." Mohler says, "Hillsong is in many ways an updated millennial prosperity theology packed very well with contemporary music."
Worship Doesn't Have to Be a "No Smoking" Zone
To be clear, having a good band lead worship, complete with lights and even a smoke machine is not bad. Some lambast music styles, but I do not. I am firmly convinced authentic worship can take place through a variety of music styles. To argue otherwise is a waste of breath and ultimately moot.
However, just having good music does not excuse weak preaching. There are some incredible worship songs being written today and many have been sung regularly in churches throughout the world. Yet, the wise pastor would be careful to ensure the worship music (whether old hymns, country gospel, hip hop, modern praise, etc.) has strongly worded lyrics that affirm good theology. A good rule of thumb is that if a band spends more time explaining why a lyric is biblical after being confronted by solid, biblically sound pastors regarding said lyric, the song should be deleted from the worship set.
I don't care if the band plays contemporary music. I don't care if there are lights and a smoke machine. I don't care that a trendy logo is slapped on various items. I really don't care if a church does that. My warning is to not major on the minors (all that stuff) and miss the main thing - the message of the gospel.
A Higher Standard
I care about these churches because I know some of their pastors and a good number of their members. I pray they will not sacrifice the good news for a good time.
However, if a local church proves to be more icing than cake, I will continue to pray for them and not recommend that anyone attend.
And for those who counter "Well, they weren't going to church anywhere. At least that church is better than not going, right?" I say - "Probably not."
I care because I want people to come to Christ. I want the unreached reached. I want the lost found. I just don't want a fluffy, weak, watered-down version of Christianity to propagate.
There's too much at stake.